File photo | Credit: MUSC Facebook

The South Carolina Telehealth Alliance (SCTA), headquartered at the MUSC Health Center for Telehealth, one of only two National Telehealth Centers of Excellence in the country, today announced the launch of an initiative to expand access to specialist care to underserved areas.

The new initiative, South Carolina eConsult, will use SCTA partner ReferWell’s digital platform to allow S.C. health providers and local practices to consult with experts in various specialties to better outline a patient’s care, regardless of the patient’s typical access.

“This South Carolina eConsult initiative represents a huge opportunity for patients in rural and underserved areas of South Carolina to receive care guidance from top specialists whom they would otherwise not be able to see in person, and to access specialist-informed care without the need to travel far or incur extra bills,” said Dr. James McElligott, SCTA advisory council co-chair.

Virtual consults will be available in neurology, endocrinology, rheumatology, hematology and clinical genetics in the initial phase of the program. Future plans include adding other specialties and partnering with health systems across the state.

SCTA is making the ReferWell platform available to South Carolina providers free of charge. This move, SCTA said in a press release, will improve outcomes, optimize the patient experience, increase efficiency and reduce total cost of care.

The initiative follows an increase in focus on telemedicine by both federal agencies and private health care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal Department of Health and Human Services issued a number of temporary measures to make it easier for recipients of Medicare and Medicaid to receive telehealth care during the pandemic. And the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a detailed report about the growing trend as early as October 2020.

“Telehealth could have multiple benefits during the pandemic by expanding access to care, reducing disease exposure for staff and patients, preserving scarce supplies of personal protective equipment, and reducing patient demand on facilities,” the CDC’s report reads. “Telehealth policy changes might continue to support increased care access during and after the pandemic.”

MUSC hasd partnered with software firms to provide telehealth to rural communities even before the pandemic, seeing about 10,000 video visits in January 2020. But numbers skyrocketed to 2.5 million in April, MUSC partner Epic software programmer Taylor Seale told City Paper’s sister publication in December 2020.